Catster Hero: Harmony House for Cats Saves Kitties and the Environment


When Harmony House for Cats in Chicago rebuilt its shelter last year, it did so with a specific goal in mind. Using eco-friendly equipment and materials during construction, it designed and built a shelter that achieved Platinum LEED status — LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — from the U.S. Green Building Council in November 2012.

According to the Harmony House website, LEED-certified buildings are designed to "lower operating costs and increase asset value; reduce waste sent to landfills; conserve energy and water; be healthier and safer for occupants; and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions."

The details of the no-kill shelter’s environmentally conscious features are impressive. The building’s heating and cooling system is powered by 14 geothermal wells, 20 solar thermal panels, and a 96-panel solar photovoltaic system. A central landscaped courtyard provides access to daylight and is accessible to everyone in the shelter. This includes the cats.

"Cats in every room of the shelter enjoy natural light and look out at the trees and flowers surrounding the building," says Ann Dieter, Harmony House president.

Founded in 1970, Harmony House came on the rescue scene when local animal control and the Anti-Cruelty Society were pretty much the only game in town. Recognizing that many cats were being needlessly euthanized in overcrowded city shelters, the founders of Harmony House started rescuing cats and boarding them at vets’ offices until they could be placed in homes.

"They wanted cats and kittens to have longer than the typical five days at a shelter," Dieter says.

In 43 years, the shelter has grown tremendously. Today anywhere from 130 to 150 cats live at Harmony House at any given time, with 90 to 110 getting adopted each year. Approximately 90 percent of the cats at Harmony House are former strays brought to the shelter by residents of Chicago — and once cats arrive at Harmony House, they will always have a place to go.

"When we get cats returned after five, 10, even 15 years in their home, we always accept any cat back," Dieter says. "But the transition back to shelter life is so hard on the cat."

In order to make the transition to shelter life easier on all cats, Harmony House is cageless. According to Dieter, this homelike environment is beneficial for cats and potential adopters alike.

"This makes for a homelike relaxed environment for the cats," she says, "and for the adopters to get to know them while choosing a new pet."

One special pet at Harmony House currently looking for a forever home is Evander, a handsome tuxedo cat. He caught the eye of a woman named Rebecca, who fed and cares for a feral cat colony in her neighborhood.

"Unlike many of the other cats Rebecca watched over, Evander was not feral," reads the Harmony House newsletter. "He greeted her each day, liked to be petted, and he waited patiently for something more than a meal. He wanted a home."

Rebecca got Evander neutered and vaccinated before contacting Harmony House to see if it could take him in. The cat should have been a routine intake, but during his physical exam, the vet discovered several troubling injuries.

According to the newsletter, "Evander had many fractured teeth, and his jaw had been badly damaged. Whether the injury was from the impact of a car or he took a bad fall is not known. It was a wonder that the cat could even eat with his teeth in this condition."

The price tag for Evander’s surgery was set at $1,200, even with a generous rescue discount. As is often the case, money at Harmony House was tight — but "we could not turn our backs on this gentle sweet cat with the heart of a prizefighter."

After having an abscessed tooth, three molars, and many small teeth that had been fractured removed and spending several weeks in the medical ward, Evander is currently waiting for his forever family to arrive. Fortunately, his jaw did not require wiring or surgical repairs.

These days, the cat has it good. The hardest part of his recovery: Going without his favorite dry cat chow. Helping cats like Evander and other special-needs kitties find homes is the most rewarding part of the job, according to Dieter.

"They are the kitties we are the most invested in — although we try not to play favorites," she says.

About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.
More by Angela Lutz:

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